The Past is a Foreign Country

We’ll fill one more gap from our presentation. Our previous gap-fill was on Professor E. R. Love and the disappearing art of lecturing. The past is a foreign country and, indeed, they do things differently there. This post is about the past and that foreign country. The country is called China.

The above photo is of a Nanjing school, the sister to our daughters’ school here in Melbourne. It is considered a good public school, but no more than that, and the photo is of a Year 5 class. What does one notice? What does one notice, that is, apart from the algebra and the general formulae, material that Australia typically covers, thinly and badly, in around Year 8?

There is no colour. The room is dressed in drab tiles and off-white walls. There are no posters. There’s just rows of students at their desks, and a teacher up front with nothing but an overhead projector and a blackboard. What a Hell.

It’s a Hell we would kill for.

The photo is of a class, of a teacher teaching, of students learning. The students are respectful and attentive. They are undistracted, in no small part because there is nothing to invite distraction. It may not be apparent from the photo but was obvious from our observations, the students also enjoyed and appreciated the class. They were happy and engaged, and the teacher was engaged with them. The students presented their work and asked questions, and the teacher responded and, when need be, corrected. She was kind, and she was firm. The class had a purpose and everyone clearly understood and appreciated that purpose.

The Nanjing school is not just a Hell we would kill for, it’s a Hell we know very well. The Nanjing class reminded us of nothing as much as our primary school from the 60s. Macleod State School was completely ordinary, just another cheap, flung-up middle class Melbourne school. It had grey walls and desks in rows, and hilariously bad heating. It also had bullies and authoritarian assholes and corporal punishment, and the worst teacher we ever experienced or ever witnessed.

Macleod State School also had classes where the teacher was the boss and was, properly, respected. There was a clear and meaningful curriculum. The teachers were expected to, and generally wished to, teach the curriculum. The students were expected to and generally wished to, learn the curriculum. The students also had very little say in the matter. The school had a purpose, a proper purpose, and in general everyone went about that purpose in a thoughtless and efficient manner.

The past is a foreign country.

32 Replies to “The Past is a Foreign Country”

    1. Craig, I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic or not. The Chinese leaders aren’t very commie these days, although they are certainly totalitarian thugs. I don’t think this is the explanation for Chinese education not sucking, but it may not be irrelevant: strong authority and tradition, and general respect for authority and tradition, is clearly key.

  1. Marti,

    Photo reminds me a little of my grandfather’s school High Storr’s in South Yorkshire of the 50’s . The cream of Sheffield was cherry picked by the Oxford feeder school King Edwards at aged 11+ and the rest got to go to High Storr’s . Luckily they had one of the better practical physics teachers in Northern England to compensate them and he had a way with words.

    Eg he likened the earth to a giant off spinner at Old Trafford

    The kids of the 50s seem happy and the science room looks functional

    Steve R

    1. Thanks, Steve. Great photo. It really pisses me off that the current, Happy Happy educationalists paint traditional education, and Asian education, as a Dickensian nightmare. It’s just not true.

  2. While we are all fondly looking at the past, class photos from my school showed about 70 students in primary school classes (with one teacher) and 40-50 students in secondary school classes.

    1. There is an interesting study (post PISA – 2010ish) that shows average class sizes, teacher salaries in USD (adjusted for purchasing power) and PISA results in Mathematics.

      Without context, in the countries where students perform better, the classes are larger and teachers are paid less.

      The point missing from it all is that in the high performing countries, teaching is a highly respected profession and good students *want* to become teachers.

      To a certain extent, I think this is the root of the problem. As such, attempts to “raise the standards” for the teaching profession here in Oz simply won’t succeed if the solution only looks at the current cohort of aspiring teachers and not those who may have been great but never considered the career.

      Opinion, not fact, but I’m sticking to it in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

      1. Thanks, RF. It is idiotic to imagine lowering class sizes won’t in general improve education. It is also idiotic to imagine that there aren’t plenty of ways to fuck up education, independent of class size.

        1. Correlation, not causation. I have no doubt that South Korea, China, Singapore have many more things going for them which offset the class sizes.

          I do believe that class sizes are ideally 12 to 20 students for Mathematics, but we don’t always get what we want.

          More to the point, however, I was suggesting that without a critical examination of why good students of Mathematics do not go on to teach it, and the consequences of this which schools know very well, you can “raise the bar” as high as you like for entry in to courses, you can make classes as small as you like and you can play around with the curriculum until… (bad example) it won’t matter.

          Until more people *want* to become teachers, until society gives up this idea that teachers have to be entertainers (yes, Mr Woo, looking at you), the other matters are not going to do that much.

        2. When it comes to a discussion of class size, I like to ask the following question:

          Will the educational outcomes be better in a class of size 200 or a class size of 10?

          Once this simple question is answered (and the answer is obvious, if not change 200 to 300, 400, 500 …), then there is indisputable agreement that class size DOES matter. Then the only possible debate is at what figure do you place the upper limit.

          The argument about whether or not education can be fucked up in a class of any size is of course a separate argument. (And I agree that only an idiot would try to argue that it can’t get fucked up).

          So it’s a pretty simple equation:

          appropriate class size + competent teacher + decent curriculum = good educational outcome.

          But this won’t generate too many pseudo-intellectual publications and would result in 85% of ‘educational experts’ perishing.

          1. At the risk of incurring scorn for quoting “educational research”, my understanding of what has been found is that class size only matters to the extent that there are consequent adjustments to the teacher’s practice. So 20 vs 25 doesn’t make much difference, because a teacher will mor or less teach the same. Class sizes need to drop quite low before we start to see significant changes in practice (ie. more individualised feedback, etc.). Large class sizes present a problem because of workload and classroom management.

      2. As for correlation/causation, after the last PISA exercise, one wit commented that in South Korea, China, and Singapore, they use chop-sticks.

        More seriously, in the PISA exercise, China selects students from only four regions: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Why is it so?

          1. Interesting – I always thought that China (Shanghai) in PISA was used to distinguish from Macau and Hong Kong, I missed the other regions being separate calculations.

            Your point (implied) is valid though Marty (and Terry). If, say, one only looks at the Veneto region and not the whole of Italy, the results are comparable to that of (say) Finland which may be interesting to some, but really doesn’t help in any big way.

            Why do I care? I don’t. I just like playing with numbers.

      3. “The point missing from it all is that in the high performing countries, teaching is a highly respected profession and good students *want* to become teachers.

        To a certain extent, I think this is the root of the problem. As such, attempts to “raise the standards” for the teaching profession here in Oz simply won’t succeed if the solution only looks at the current cohort of aspiring teachers and not those who may have been great but never considered the career.”

        RF, I totally, 100%, agree with you.
        Teaching (in Australia, the US, etc) is viewed, on a societal level, as a job that people do either to 1) just pay the bills or 2) because they lack any other skill apart from academics.
        This leads to some serious consequences, such as students (and parents) believing that us teachers are trying to shove irrelevant/useless in real-life content down their throats, with massive lack of respect to boot.
        It’s a systemic problem and I doubt it’ll ever be fixed. For as long as the average Joe views teaching this way, it will never be respected.

        Make teaching a respected profession, respect teachers and respect what they’re trying to do, and the whole populace would be better off for it.

        Would love to hear further comments on this.

        1. The problem then becomes – how do you raise the status of the teaching profession?

          Firstly, it needs to be accepted as a profession as opposed to a vocation. I remember being told in 2003 (my first experience with the VIT…) that the “institute” was being set up to “raise the status of the teaching profession”. Well, a few thousand dollars in fees to them later and… I’m still waiting to see any progress here.

          So do we need a stronger union? No – unions are (mostly) associated with non-academic workers, highly skilled as many of them may be.

          Does salary have anything to do with it? Possibly. Status and salary probably have a strong positive correlation in many countries but I remember too well the Gonski review and what eventually happened (not much).

          So, what can governments do? Here I think there is an answer: GET OUT OF THE WAY AND LET US DO WHAT WE KNOW WORKS. The ever increasing requirements of PD, accreditation, registration, curriculum audits… is sending the completely OPPOSITE message.

          1. RF, I disagree. I much prefer to see teaching as vocational rather than professional. The latter leads directly to perverted measures of professionalism, as encompassed in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. These standards don’t make teaching one jot more “professional”, they make teaching significantly less vocational, and they make things demonstrably worse for everyone. In particular, I think this professionalism fakery is a main reason why people are, as you note, constantly getting in the way of teachers.

            Your suggestion that teachers “know what works” is highly contentious. Teaching needs to be fixed, but I think that fixing has to come from the reform of the education system as a whole, not from badgering teachers, and particularly not from badgering them to undergo meaningless, or actively poisonous, “professional development”.

            1. Interesting idea – might work, too. Except, it is never going to happen (well, never is a bit of a strong word)

              Teaching is a complex problem and if we tried to focus on “Mathematics teaching” it becomes even more difficult. How do you define a “Mathematics teacher?”

              Someone who teaches a mathematics class? Someone who is “qualified” (whatever that means) to teach a mathematics class or someone who is “effective” at teaching mathematics?

              The first group is possibly double the size of either of the other groups.

              1. RF, of course it’s never going to happen. This blog isn’t about things that might happen; it’s about systemic awfulness, in education and in society generally, and how one should behave in the face of it.

                Your question on the difficulty of defining a (good) “teacher” or “mathematics teacher” is making my point. It is exactly this difficulty that results in the Professional Standards consisting of meaningless, pointless and poisonous directives.

              1. Good question, SRK. It comes down to the connotations, which may be different for RF. For me, “vocation” has the connotation of a calling; it’s something in your blood. And, “profession”, again for me, suggests employment with qualifications and measurable standards.

                My mother was a teacher.

                1. I’m sceptical about romanticising what people do for employment. People can teach for a variety of reasons, ranging from extremely altruistic to extremely naive to extremely mercenary. But if the teacher is doing a good job, and their motivation to maintain high standards is robust against the various challenges the job presents, then I don’t see why it’s all that important.

                  I share your view that teaching does not require lengthy formal education in a specialised body of knowledge and skills (aside from the education one receives in the subject matter one teaches), and the attempts to codify “good teaching” through “professional standards” do little more than take teachers away from improving their craft.

                  I also think that trying to portray teaching as requiring that sort of education does not fly with the general population. Almost everyone has had a teacher who, despite having a bachelors degree in education or postgrad diploma in education, was not much chop. Improving the cultural status of teaching won’t come about by trying to convince people that teachers know stuff in the same way that engineers and doctors and lawyers know stuff. It’ll come about by bringing about good results for what young people know and can do.

                  1. Thanks, SRK. I agree, that people become teachers, or anythingers, for all manner of random reasons, and they are good or bad at their jobs for all manner of random reasons. Probably the only thing that is clear is that the Professional Standards (with capitals) and Professional Development (with capitals) is actively damaging.

              2. There are differing opinions on what makes a “profession”. One argument, put forward for the creation of the VIT (about which I could say a lot – as could Marty no doubt – but won’t) is that to be a “profession” there must be an organizing body which sets out the standards for said “profession”.

                I’ve never really cared so much, I just turn up and do the best I can. Quite a few of my colleagues throw around the line “I am a professional” but I don’t think this achieves anything.

        2. Thanks, Steve. The undervaluing of teaching has been an issue for a long time. What seems a newer and more serious problem is the undervaluing of learning.

          1. And that, right there, Marty is the core of the problem.

            With all the talk about raising the standards for teachers, the bar for learning seems to be lower with each re-draft of the curriculum.

        3. The pandemic might have opened the eyes of a few parents that teaching is not an easy gig …. I think respect for teachers will rise, and I think a few more people might see teaching as a secure and worthwhile profession to enter.

          1. JF, my experience in this has been admittedly sheltered, given the nature of my school and the fact that I’m something of a “grunt” who doesn’t have much more to do than turn up on time and deliver a few examples and set some homework…

            …but I’ve seen a bit of a worrying trend in that initially, yes, I would absolutely agree with you, but in this second lockdown things seem to have faded quickly back towards the “normal” and unfortunately, I believe that a lot of good lessons about education, management of schools and how to teach the curriculum will simply not be learned.

            The race to “get back to the way things were” seems to outweigh the desire to learn anything positive from this experience by those who make the big decisions.

  3. I was brought up to believe that vocation is a calling, a calling from God. And I still have this view.

    I regard a profession as an occupation for which one is paid; e.g. professional tennis players v. amateur tennis players.

    1. Terry, my use of “vocation” has a similar, spiritual sense to it. As for “profession”, it is now used to mean much more than just “paid occupation”. In particular, the “professionalisation” of occupations is a specific form of managerialism, a new and noxious weed that is choking the life out of everything.

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